While the numbers do not yet signal an outright teacher shortage, officials say they point to a worrisome trend of a graying workforce and fewer entrants into what has traditionally been one of the bulwark professions of the middle class.
"We've been worrying about this for a while," said Juliet Tiffany-Morales, research analyst for SRI International who has studied education trends. "A shortage could materialize. There's definitely a smaller pool of people going into teaching."
So far, the profession is holding its own because school districts have increased class sizes to cope with teacher layoffs, and the number of retiring teachers has more or less equaled the number of new teachers, Tiffany-Morales said. Both figure in the 15,000 to 20,000 range.
But a pinch could arise with a predicted steady rise of 1.4 percent in the state's population of school-age children over the next decade, a new transitional kindergarten grade for 4-year-olds that went into effect this fall and the introduction of national curriculum standards which will require retraining that some older teachers may not opt for.
"It's definitely something that people are keeping an eye on," said Holly Jacobson, director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, which tracks teacher supply trends. "There are a lot of variables at play so it's hard to predict, but we're seeing a shift in teachers."
The biggest factor driving teacher demand is demographics. The state Department of Finance projects more than 87,000 more children will be entering school from the 2011-12 school year to 2021-22 - about 60,000 of them elementary schoolers with the Inland Empire counties seeing the biggest increases.
Meanwhile, teacher preparation programs are losing enrollment. At California State University, which trains half of the state's teachers, the dropoff has been huge: from more than 31,000 teaching students in 2002-03 to just 11,000 in 2010-11.
Statewide, teacher credentials have dropped from more than 27,000 issued in 2003-04 to 18,700 in 2010-11, according to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
"Probably the biggest factor has been the job market," said Beverly Young, CSU assistant vice chancellor of teacher education and public school programs.
The teacher workforce lost more than 23,000 teachers from 2008 to 2011, mostly due to layoffs caused by state funding cuts although there has also been a big increase in retirements, some through incentive programs, according to a report "Status of the Teaching Profession 2011" by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.
Most of the laid off teachers were those newer to the profession in accordance with the state's last-hired-first-fired layoff policy, which has had a chilling effect on students contemplating teaching careers, Young said. "If you're a college student, you're seeing that happening," she said.
But Jacobson noted that while teaching has fewer new entrants, a shortage is likely not imminent. Thousands of laid off teachers are available for open positions should they arise. Some laid off teachers may move into other fields, but many continue to work as substitutes and are waiting to be called from rehiring lists, she said.
While much has been made of a wave of baby-boomer retirements, California's unstable economy has spurred many older teachers hang on longer, creating fewer openings. According to the 2011 report, 57 percent of teachers have more than 10 years of experience in 2010-11, up from 46 percent five years earlier.
While they will eventually retire, some more experienced teachers could be spurred to move on sooner with the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, a national curriculum that will require teachers to undergo retraining. "That could weed out some older people," Jacobson said.
Experts note there are still teaching jobs available in fields that have longstanding shortages - math, science, bilingual and special education teachers have always been highly sought after, and some laid off teachers are going back to school to earn credentials in those areas. Inner-city and outlying rural schools also have high turnover.
Still, outside of those specialized areas, jobs are hard to come by.
Olga Rubio, professor and coordinator of bilingual authorizations at Cal State Long Beach, said it's even hard to place student teachers with school districts, despite the fact that there are fewer students. "We squeeze by, but it really takes work and negotiating to get these student teachers placed," she said.
In the past, student teachers would usually get hired by the district, but these days they are more likely to only find work as substitutes. "People who want to be teachers are deeply committed so they just do it and hope that sooner or later there'll be a job," she said. "It's discouraging for them."
Damon Brodowski, who is studying at Cal State Long Beach to earn his credential to teach middle and high school English, said he's sticking with his career goal although he knows current job prospects are weak when he graduates in the spring.
To give the employment market time to bounce back, he's planning on pursuing a master's degree instead of job-hunting right away. He hopes that will make him a more attractive job candidate, as well as boost his pay, when schools start hiring again. He said he remains optimistic.
"I was kind of worried that there aren't going to be any jobs when I get out of school, but there's going to be a big need for educators again," he said. "Teaching is just something I really enjoy. Seeing students progress and achieve their goals, that's rewarding."